Getting Virtual Panel Interviews Right

Even a month ago, the idea of a national charity appointing a Chief Executive, member of the leadership team or Board member without meeting them in person would have been almost unthinkable. Without warning, we are in a new world where crucial leadership appointments still need to be made, more so if organisations are to emerge ready to tackle a new norm. Suddenly the ‘rules’ of recruitment as we knew them have been torn up and rewritten.

At the very point where face-to-face final panels were no longer possible, Joanne Thornton, Partner in our Not for Profit Practice found herself with four high profile leadership roles about to go to final interview stage with national charity clients. Putting things on hold didn’t cross her mind; she knew we had the capability and infrastructure to support progressing these vital appointments. 

Here she gives her observations of working with clients and candidates to design a virtual final panel process that tested candidates rigorously, was engaging for all and that would leave both parties feeling that they had been able to test both the skills match and the chemistry. 

Addressing technology confidence concerns and different systems.

Building confidence is the first priority, well ahead of the panel, so that candidates are reassured and do not feel at a disadvantage if they are less familiar with the technology.  A major part of our role has always been to prepare candidates for final panel by sharing feedback from the preliminary interview stage, making sure candidates are well-briefed and have a detailed understanding of the role and the organisation. This now also extends to making sure candidates feel comfortable about the virtual process and the subtle differences in approach that this method may necessitate.

We have also done this with panel members to make sure that everyone is happy in advance of the day and to mitigate the risk of any issues.

One of our team will undertake a test run in advance, to make sure the right app is installed on laptops etc. We will also discuss camera positioning, their environment and offer feedback on body language; panels are likely to want to be able to read candidates as they would in a face-to-face but may struggle to do so if candidate is sitting too close to their computers or they are distracted by other things within the video frame.

For the hiring organisation, nominate an internal representative to act as the main liaison will ensure that the panel works smoothly on the day.  

An internal representative can ensure that the panel, external Board members, stakeholders, and peer panels all have access to the right technology and know how to use it as well as managing the invitation links that are distributed to interviewees – GS can help with this where needed. A backup plan in the unlikely event that the tech fails on the day is also useful, such as a dial in number. Though this is unlikely to be needed, it reduces stress and reassures all participants that there is an agreed backup instruction to follow.

The design of the day itself is critical. 

Just as it is unusual for a face-to-face final panel to include only one element, the hiring organisation will want to ensure that the candidates have been rigorously tested and exposed to different stakeholders. We have developed a virtual suite of assessments so it is possible to replicate a full assessment day which might include presentation, stakeholder engagement sessions, media exercises and informal conversations with internal team members over video conference. There is no reason to think that a virtual final panel compromises the integrity or depth of the process.

How to manage multiple people who join a video call at different times. 

Again, planning is key. Identify where separate links/invites are needed for different sessions or various stakeholders.  For example, if there is a panel interview followed by a stakeholder engagement session, followed by an informal conversation with peers on the leadership team, each of these can go out as separate diary invitations with different links, so that the right people are on the call at the right time; especially important so that the next candidate cannot join before they are required to avoid any embarrassment.

Understanding the features of your VC system enable you to design the most effective panel.  For example, where various stakeholders need to join at different times, you may wish to use the ‘lobby’ facility on Microsoft Teams, which can be used to bring the right people into different elements of the process at the right time.

Remember that it can be harder to ‘read the room’ during a virtual final panel.  

We advise that there is a lead person on the panel to ‘host’ the interview and facilitate the discussion. There is greater onus to explain questions asked and allow extra time for candidates to process the questions. The host should make clear which panel member is asking the question and why. The host should also ‘move things along’ when follow up questions have been asked and the panel are happy with the information received. Likewise, the host can manage the sequence of follow up questions to ensure the panel does not talk over one another. To avoid any disruption during the call, the host can also highlight any background noise and ask the relevant participant to use the mute button.

Assessing chemistry and ‘fit’. 

You will still be able to read body language, but more important are facial expressions. Ensuring that cameras are positioned close enough to catch facial expressions of both the interviewers and the candidate will help facilitate this.

You can further test the chemistry outside of the formal panel by factoring in a one to one with CEO, Chair or the line manager for shortlisted candidates, or just the preferred candidate before progressing to offer stage.

Time keeping should be actively managed

We found it useful to have a designated person to keep an eye on the time and keep stakeholders and candidates involved in the next stage of the day informed. This will avoid participants dialling in and being the only one present if a schedule is running slightly behind. In panels where your GS consultant is not in attendance, communicate with us throughout the day so that we can help you manage communication in the event of delay.

We are all working in extraordinary times and despite everyone’s best efforts to plan ahead, we can’t always control everything. The expression ‘never work with children or animals’ has never been more apt; occasionally technology may go wrong, or a small child or pet may make an unexpected entrance into the proceedings. My own personal experience of this happening over the last couple of weeks tells me that a sense of humour and taking a deep breath can really help!

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